The country needs a more informed debate on China: Nirupama Rao

‘The challenge is to find the right balance and maintain a kind of steady equilibrium in taking the relationship with China forward.'

Updated - October 17, 2016 03:07 pm IST

Published - December 22, 2010 12:13 am IST

India's Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, attends a conference entitled 'Perspectives on Foreign Policy for a 21st Century India'  at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in central London, on February 22, 2010. AFP Photo/Carl Court

India's Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, attends a conference entitled 'Perspectives on Foreign Policy for a 21st Century India' at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in central London, on February 22, 2010. AFP Photo/Carl Court

Sino-Indian relations should not be defined by competition or rivalry alone because it does not suit either country, says Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao in an exclusive interview to Karan Thapar on the CNBC TV18 programme, India Tonight. The interview covers major issues including stapled visas, Pakistan and terror, and trade.

Hello and welcome to India Tonight. Let us start with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's visit. The press seems to have had mixed reviews of the outcome.

The government sees this visit as part of a continuum, part of a process of evolution in the [Sino-Indian] relationship. It has had a further stabilising effect on the relationship. When our leaders meet and discuss issues that concern the relationship it provides for greater clarity, higher resolution, if one were to use an optic term, in terms of the way forward.

Let us look at some of the issues that would have cropped up. To begin with, stapled visas. As you said, the Chinese themselves brought up the subject. According to reports in The Hindu , the Chinese said in Beijing that they view this as an administrative, not a political issue.

As I mentioned earlier, Premier Wen Jiabao brought it up himself even before we could raise it and we intended definitely to raise it with the Chinese. The first point he made was that they understood that this was a serious issue. Therefore, what he told the Prime Minister was that we need to sort this out.

A second issue that would have come up would be India's claim to a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council. Have you got an indication of support more than we have had in the past from the Chinese?

Whenever Premier Wen and our Prime Minister have discussed this issue, the signals that we have received from the side of the Chinese and particularly from Premier Wen have been that they are looking at this issue with a lot of interest. The signals we are getting from China are firstly that they see that the aspirations of a country like India to play a greater role in the United Nations are worthy of support. When it comes to the ultimate decision, China is unlikely to stand in the way.

On the question of terror, from the Joint Statement there is no mention of 26/11, there is no mention of bringing the culprits to justice in Pakistan, or Pakistan not indulging in anti-India terror. In your own press statement, you said Prime Minister Wen expressed great sympathy for the Mumbai attacks and that Chinese people have felt great concern for the victims of Mumbai attacks.

China and India do have a dialogue on counter-terrorism issues. Premier Wen did bring this up in the conversation with our Prime Minister. Of course, you have to be realistic about the relationship also. China and Pakistan have a very close strategic consensus on many issues, and the depth of that relationship is known to all of us. But the fact is that with China the relationship that we have been able to build up over the last few years and the dimensions that this relationship has come to acquire have included a very useful discussion on counter-terrorism also.

The Joint Statement perhaps for the first time after 15-20 years does not mention India's commitment to a One-China policy, it does not recognise or reaffirm India viewing Tibet as part of Chinese territory.

I mentioned in my press conference that it was not really a bone of contention when we were drafting the communiqué.

They did not demur at all?

They did not demur at all. It did not really figure in the discussion. Well, you can read a number of meanings into that. First of all, every communiqué and every statement that we have made so far jointly with the Chinese have referred to the One-China policy. And in fact there is a mention of all the previous statements in the joint communiqué that we concluded this time.

But it is not expressed in the document.

Yes, in this particular joint communiqué it does not find a mention.

The press has interpreted this to mean that India would like some significant recognition by China of India's total sovereign claim on Kashmir.

I think there have been a lot of dramatic assumptions that have been expressed through various sections of the media and a number of opinion makers, or at least analysts have alluded to what you have just said. But obviously in any relationship there has to be mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Is this in the context of the stapled visas, in the context of China's increasing involvement in PoK, another development that worries us about the Chinese overall attitude to Kashmir?

I think you have to search even more deeply in this. And I think our vision in this sense must be directed westward and looking at the China-Pakistan relationship. And there is every indication, and the Chinese also leave us in little doubt about this in terms of their actions and statements, about the depth and substance of the China-Pakistan relationship.

It is a strategic relationship that has acquired momentum over the last five decades directly after the India-China conflict over the border in 1962. And it shows no signs of diminishing. It is not that we have sought to turn a blind eye to it when we engaged the Chinese. What is important now is that we are directly raising issues of concern with the Chinese side in a very candid and in a very forthcoming way.

The media seem to be convinced that the Chinese are either rethinking or perhaps even resiling from the 2005 agreement that settled areas would not be disturbed.

I would not make those stark conclusions. We have had the agreement on Guiding Principles and Political Parameters for the settlement of the boundary question way back in 2005, and those agreements still hold.

Any rethinking in Beijing ...?

I would disagree with that. I think it is more a question of we are getting down to working out a framework for a boundary settlement. And obviously it is extremely complex. You know the discussions that have been held from 1960 onwards on this question.

The two countries are hoping to achieve $60 billion worth of trade this year. You have set a target of $100 billion for 2015. But at the same time you have a worrying trade deficit which is just over $19 billion. Can you achieve $100 billion without the trade deficit becoming even bigger?

The record of the last few years would suggest the economic relationship, the people-to-people relationship, the connectivity between the two countries. So, this is really the future of the relationship. You are going to have discussions to resolve outstanding issues, as I said, on the boundary, but where do we move forward on the economic and trade relationship. And that is where the imbalance comes in. I saw Dr. Amit Mitra's very well-argued article the other day about the imbalance being unsustainable. And that is the message that we have made very clearly to the Chinese. They have to open the market to our IT services, to our pharmaceuticals, to our agricultural commodities.

But are they prepared to do that because that is how they secure the trade surplus?

Well, when Premier Wen was here and you saw his public statements on the issue, I think he made the effort to convey to the Indian public that China took this issue seriously and they intended to work towards reducing this.

Once again, the ball is very much in China's court.

I think so. But Indian business is doing well in China today. We have a number of our big names doing good business in China and there is that dimension also of the relationship.

On the one hand, China is India's single biggest trading partner but, on the other, China supports Pakistan over Kashmir, it would not criticise Pakistan's use of terror as an instrument of policy, it bends laws to supply Islamabad with nuclear reactors, it seems to want to check India's emergence as a leading power, it disputes our sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh. What sort of a relationship do we have?

It is a question of finding the right responses and charting a course that preserves and protects India's interests given the scenario that you just mentioned. On the trade front, I have said what we want from China and what we intend to engage them about as far as reduction of the trade imbalance is concerned. On the other hand, there is the strategic aspect of the China-Pakistan relationship and all the attendant complexities that it brings to bear even on the discussions on the boundary question. I think the public in this country also needs a more informed debate on China.

People like Brajesh Mishra often sound concerned about the possibility that Beijing and Islamabad may work together thus posing for India the unique problem of two troublesome neighbours on the north and the west.

I think we have to think smartly about dealing with such scenarios. We run the risk very often in this country of reducing the relationship with China to one issue or another issue and then developing scenarios around it. We need a much more comprehensive appreciation of what the challenges are in this relationship and how do we address these challenges.

What about the fact that today China is the world's second biggest economic power? It is heading fast towards becoming in fact the biggest. Some people say that by 2050 it would probably replace America as the biggest superpower.

It should concern every Indian and I think it should really spur us on to narrowing this divide or this gap in the race with China. It should not be a relationship defined by competition or rivalry alone because it does not suit either country. Look at the stakes involved. Look at the tasks before us in terms of our development. Look at the miles that we have to cover. We have to understand China better, to engage it in a way that defends our interests.

To what extent is the popular appreciation of the relationship with China hampered by a lingering trauma or complex from 1962?

I know there is a generation of Indians that still thinks of 1962 and in many ways our opinions and images of China, the scratches on our minds as it were — to use a term from Harold Isaacs — very much defined by the trauma of 1962. But there is a whole new generation of Indians and Chinese that has grown up after that. I would say issues like stapled visas, the hype and debate that has surrounded the possibility of China building dams on the Brahmaputra, or the reports that surface from time to time about how the Chinese look at the border, these are issues that are affecting the public psychology on China today.

Some people say India and China are wary rivals who will perhaps cooperate when their interests converge but will be suspicious of each other when they do not.

I think there will be competition in this relationship and there will be collaboration also. There will be areas of collaboration, areas of cooperation. And I think the challenge is to find the right balance and maintain a kind of steady equilibrium in taking the relationship, the dialogue particularly with China forward so that we are able to articulate our concerns, we are able to tell the Chinese where we stand on issues of absolutely fundamental interest to us, and at the same time try to build greater mutual confidence in this relationship.

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